BOOK REVIEW EDITOR-IN-CHIEF ELLA KELLEHER WRITES – Why do people assume relationships could ever make logical sense? Love and relationships – the shimmering red strings that tie humans together – are convoluted at best. At their most devastating, they are temporary and ephemeral, like the changing ginkgo leaves that pile on the streets during Japan’s fall season. Legendary storyteller Banana Yoshimoto released her latest collection of five short stories, Dead-End Memories (2022), which equates life to a river: It rages on without any thought for the people it sweeps away. Strange, melancholy, and remarkably hopeful, Dead-End Memories follows five Japanese women forced to accept the immovable forces of time and fate.
First published in Japanese in 2003, Yoshimoto’s collection is her eleventh to be translated into English. While her most notable work, Kitchen (1988), granted her international fame and praise, her most recent translated release is the work of a mature author, one she has reflectively titled the “most precious work of my writing career.” With the help of Asa Yoneda, an Oxford-educated literary sage of translation, Yoshimoto offers an adult perspective on not only the euphoric tidal wave that is love but also the low-tide moment when it has ebbed away.
The first short story, titled “House of Ghosts,” follows a young woman who happens upon the ghosts of a sweet, elderly couple who died in the apartment she shares with her new boyfriend. The narrator feels unsettled by the presence of these spirits, reflecting that “Ghosts probably lived in ghost time – time that flowed in its own strange way, somewhere completely removed from our own.” Yoshimoto offers the first glimpse of the river – her overarching metaphor for time itself. It appears that time, more than apparitions, is the culprit for the young couple’s anxieties. The ghosts remind them of the soon-to-be demolishment of their aging apartment building and simultaneously the dismantling of their own relationship. Perhaps this is why so many of us fear ghosts – not simply because of their perceived wickedness, drawn from the stories of old – but also because they remind us of death itself and how, like a shadow, it stalks us.
“Mama!” follows Mimi, a young and loyal employee at a publishing company who is accidentally poisoned by an unhinged co-worker. The worker poured the entire contents of bottled cold syrup into a pot of curry. The poison that entered Mimi’s system unlocked something within her, causing a permanent change. Suddenly, her repressed emotions pour out of her in random, intense intervals. Unable to stop her outbursts, even in front of clientele, she worries about her physical recovery. Her thoughts, however, shift as she realizes she has undergone a spiritual transformation. “Those days [had] exposed something inside me and changed it,” she explains, “the incident had cast me out of the world that I had known.” From her seemingly debilitating physical and spiritual trauma, Mimi was able to repair something broken within her.
The story by which the collection gets its namesake follows a young romantic woman who finds out her fiancé has been unfaithful for many months and even moved in with his new lover. On her journey toward healing, the young woman finds Nishiyama, a handsome bartender with a painful past. Having grown up isolated and malnourished with an eccentric and abusive father, Nishiyama understands the complexities of human relationships. Both so lonely that “it physically hurt,” their friendship grows into something resembling young love. The woman stares out her window at “the quiet golden world where ginkgo leaves [fall] and settle forever on the ground.” Nature itself has taught her a valuable lesson. The woman knows their friendship bordering on love cannot last. Nothing ever does, as the transience of everything is brought back into focus.
The shorter stories are less uplifting and follow an eerier and more disquieting path. “Not Warm at All” was perhaps the most unsettling and painful to read. The story follows a woman, the narrator, reflecting on her childhood friendship with a young boy named Makoto. He was drawn to her, not for any superficial reason, but because of the “glow of [her] soul.” Makoto, a character the reader gets attached to in only several pages, meets a gruesome ending. In a similarly dark short story titled “Tomo-chan’s Happiness,” a young woman remains fixated on the hope of romance even after being sexually assaulted at sixteen.
While both stories follow very different characters, they are each distinct and impactful, carrying the same metaphor. Yoshimoto poses her thought experiment: Imagine a road where modern-day people, each with busy, fleeting lives, walk past each other with purpose, never to cross paths again. Now imagine that road as a river. What gives the river its frightening nature is the “chilling infinitude of time itself.” A river waits for no one. It does not care what or who it drags along. It simply continues in the same direction, ceaselessly.
Yoshimoto’s stories are led by women who do not perfectly fit the “hero” archetype. None are etched with glory or divine purpose. Instead, they breathe, make mistakes, and experience profound loneliness, failure, tragedy, and loss within a society that carries on and spares them with no second thought. Sad and almost darkly comedic, these women struggle to form deeper connections in an industrialized global society that strives to erase individuality. The meaning that this compelling collection seems to embody is the appreciation and innate need for human warmth. The bonds that tie people together make life ultimately meaningful. After all, it is only a matter of time before the leaves change color and the current picks up to sweep us along with it.
LMU English major graduate Ella Kelleher is the AMI book review editor-in-chief and a contributing staff writer for Asia Media International. She majored in English with a concentration in multi-ethnic literature.